Brooklyn-based electronic musician/composer/improviser Sarth Calhoun a.k.a. Sarth has spent the last few months working on what at first sight looks like just any other iPhone/iPad app but actually has a lot more to it than that: it's a book, it's a story, it's an illustration, it's an album, it's a graphical album (hence the name "The Gralbum Collective")... and it might even, potentially, be a new way of distributing music all together!
The book is an easy 10-15 minute read of one-liners distributed across 8 short chaptes. It tells the tale of two children who find a device that generates transmissions which create mass hallucinations that the government wants to suppress. The story flows easily and is well augmented by the visuals. I have to say I am not sure I liked the ending though, which felt a bit inconclusive and open-ended (unless of course Sarth is setting it up for a sequel).
Graphic novels and comics are not my strong suit so I won't be commenting much on the visuals but I can tell you that there are several styles interacting to tell this story, almost as if it they came from different pens. You start with the Pixar-style cartoon type images with soft colors and round edges (think Toy Story) and you get to the more stylized, straight-lined and vectorial asian-inspired comics that in the app get filled with colors in stages and get various other photoshop-filter treatments. Reality then shifts once again and takes the shape of black and white pictures that have been treated to look like drawings. Then the black and white gets slowly colored in and eventually, by the Epilogue, you have pixellated, vectorized and almost art deco new modernist minimalistic paintings. The cool thing about all of this is that you can interact with these images by tapping, zooming, swiping and thus re-ordering the 80+ page animated novel with your touch.
Musically speaking, "The Book of Sarth" is an interesting album of experimental electronic music which draws from a number of inspirations... At times it sounds like Clock DVA, at times like Brian Eno, at times it reminded me of some '80s avantgarde electronica and kraut. The album is instrumental for the most part, but there are several tunes where vocals are pretty front and center... Sarth has a beautiful voice, especially when he does spoken word stuff in the lower register, and my only criticism is that having spoken word parts on top of music that is playing while you are reading a book that is also a graphic novel can be a bit distracting... Inevitably, when the words of the songs came in, my mind started listening to those and forgetting the words my eyes were reading... Unless Sarth is trying to create some kind of state of confusion on purpose, or unless the words in the music are supposed to somehow interact with the words on the screen (which, if they were, wasn't clear to me), I would have opted for some entirely instrumental music to go with this kind of release.
Design wise the app doesn't feel as polished as it could be (at least not when it comes to controls, buttons, scrolling etc)... As much as I am a fan of small text, I have to say I felt the text is a bit hard to read, especially when the unfortunate choice of colors makes it even harder (think light green font on light yellow background... seriously!?!?!). A black Sans-serif font instead of a colored Serif font would have way easier on the eyes, or even increasing the font size a little bit would help on the iPhone version (it almost feels like the app was programmed on/for iPad and then just downsized for the iPhone).
In my opinion, navigating the app is not very intuitive and could be re-designed a bit better, with function in mind. The good thing is that you can navigate the images and the story separately from the music. The bad thing is that if you want to listen to the music again after having read the book (which I found myself wanting to do) there is no way to do that with the app running in the background (if you quit the app or switch to another app, or even if you lock your screen, the music stops). Also the stop/play/skip/rewind button on my headphones (which by the way is highly recommend you wear to enjoy "The Book of Sarth") as well as on the Apple earbuds doesn't work with this app, which is a pity. Allegedly it's possible to download/extract the tracks from the app into iTunes so that you can listen to them while doing something else, however it is not sufficiently clear how that is supposed to be done and that too should be made more obvious/functional. Other than that the app works pretty well and except for one crash while swiping quickly to skip ahead it's been stable for me.
Aside from the fact that the title sounds a bit pompous and pretentious, I think calling it "The Book of Sarth" is almost a bit misleading, since I'd argue that it is more of an album and/or a graphical novel than it is a book. What I think is the most impressive and admirable part of this whole thing is that by delivering his music and his ideas in this way, Sarth has handed us (the general public) and the music industry at large an exciting and potentially lucrative new way of distributing words, music and images. With the music industry in a deep state of crisis, the publishing industry in an even deeper financial black hole and the creative industry always looking for new ways of being creative and deploying and distributing creativity on a large scale, the Gralbum could really be an amazing and entirely new way for artists to make a living. We've seen some isolated instances of artists releasing apps that contain their music or their videos, but the Gralbum, could be a platform for everyone to release albums with liner notes, lyrics, cover art work and so much more!! The Gralbum could be the album of the 22nd century! As a hardcore music fan who is deeply concerned for the future of music and unhappy with the current state of things, that is truly very exciting to me! My hat goes off to Sarth for having come up with this brilliant idea!
At $7.99 it might be seen as expensive when compared to the rest of the apps in the Apple ecosystem, but the price is right when you consider that you spend at least $9.99 for a new album from the iTunes store, which will be just music and no graphic content.
I give it 4 stars because I think the implementation deserves 3 stars, the content deserves 4 stars and the vision behind this entire project deserves 5 stars!